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Sunday, April 19, 2015

PH, US must rethink sea row strategy


ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
Fiery-Cross-ReefTHE United States escalated in the past week its rhetoric over the rapid reclamation being undertaken by China on Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef) and a few other reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, with US President Barack Obama capping the new word offensive by expressing concern over the Chinese’ bullying tactics.
“Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions,” Obama said in Jamaica on Thursday ahead of a Caribbean summit in Panama. “We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”
A few days earlier, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned against the militarization of the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific while US Admiral Harry Harris Jr. said China is “creating a great wall of sand” that are raising serious concerns about its territorial intentions.
While stressing that US is not taking sides in the disputes, he warned: “We take a strong stance against the militarization of these disputes.”
Admiral Harris, on the other hand, told a naval conference in Australia that competing territorial claims by several nations in the South China Sea are “increasing regional tensions and the potential for miscalculation.”
“But what’s really drawing a lot of concern in the here and now is the unprecedented land reclamation currently being conducted by China,” he said.
Malacanang, of course, was overwhelmed by the show of support by the US, particularly by Obama, and said it was the Philippines’ peaceful approach to dealing with its maritime dispute with China that drew support from the international community.
In March, India and Malaysia assured the Philippines that it had its support in the promotion of a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
But did any of these show of support matter to the Chinese?
Obviously not. Instead, China reiterated that it is justified in undertaking reclamation work on the disputed islands since they fall entirely within its sovereignty, although the area is hundreds of miles away from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese also slammed Obama’s remarks, saying the US was acting like a “thief, crying ‘stop thief.’”
“Such finger-pointing laid bare again the mind-boggling hypocrisy of the United States, which takes habitual tactics of standing facts on their heads as well as blame-shifting. Arbitrarily exercising its mighty military power, the United States is the real bully in the world who has rarely missed an opportunity to stoke tensions between China and its neighbors,” said a commentary in the state news agency Xinhua.
While the Philippines and its allies continued trading barbs with Beijing over the dispute, China is gaining ground both literally and figuratively in its territorial dispute with Manila and other claimants.
Ignoring all protests and warnings, the Chinese have rapidly reclaimed more than 60 hectares and have built various structures on these new islands.
“China’s building activities at Mischief Reef are the latest evidence that Beijing’s land reclamation is widespread and systematic,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a website devoted to monitoring activity on the disputed territory and which released recent satellite images of the reclamation projects.
Although these outposts are too vulnerable for China to use in wartime, she said, “they could certainly allow it to exert significant pressure on other South China Sea claimants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.”
Analysts see the Chinese move as a long-term strategy to project power in the region, considering the strategic location of the disputed islands that lie right in the middle of one of, if not the busiest sea lanes in the world.
Many analysts, however, believe that the land reclamation is a move aimed more at bolstering its claim over the disputed islands. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) does not include reefs and shoals. With these reefs converted into islands inhabited by the Chinese, China hopes to claim 200-mile EEZ from each of these islands, making nearly the entire mineral and fishing resources-rich South China Sea its exclusive territory.
China hopes to use these islands as a response to the Philippine argument before an international tribunal that China occupies only rocks and reefs, and not true islands that qualify for economic zones. The UNCLOS states: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” Thus, even if China were to gain control over the Spratlys, its control would be limited to the 12 nautical mile territorial waters, without an accompanying exclusive economic zone.
By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen its claims, according to M. Taylor Frayel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
China has obviously abandoned diplomacy on the issue, having ignored basically all calls by the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Australia, and the G-7 leaders from Germany, United Kingdom, European Community, France, Canada, Italy, Japan and the US against use of force and coercion in the East and South China Sea.
China has made it clear that it won’t be a party to any international arbitration and would only be willing to hold bilateral talks with the claimants.
The Philippines and the US will have to consider a more aggressive approach to stop the “creeping invasion” by China. Once the reclamation work on the disputed islands are completed and the airstrips and other military structures are in place, it would be much more difficult to stop the Chinese.
The ongoing Balikatan exercises being held near the disputed region with the US sending 6,000 troops, double its previous number, could be a start to send a signal to China that the US and the Philippines mean business. But it may take more to hold off the Chinese.
(valabelgas@aol.com)

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